I came home from church today giddy with excitement at my conversation with Alberto. I felt like a little school girl. He was so interesting. He was so nice. He was so...Italian!
No, not a crush, of course. More like a sense of triumph. Alberto is my once-a-week Italian friend at church. The first week he came up to say hi, I felt so sheepish. I could only reply, "Ciao. I'm sorry I don't speak Italian, but I'm learning" to his friendly Italian "overtures".
About a month went by when this Alberto came up to me again and tried again to speak to me. That time I was able to say a little more, although I still understood very little. I could tell him my name, that I was married and had two kids, and what we were doing here. We left on friendly terms, and I felt encouraged that I was able to say a little more.
Since then, we've had several conversations, and each time he encourages me that I am speaking more than the last time, and certainly far more than the first time. Sometimes I get discouraged that I can't say what I want, but it's hard to gauge my own progress. This sort of outside measure has proved to be most encouraging. Each time I am understanding more and able to say more.
This last time, I felt great about our interaction. One, I understood 75% of what he was saying and, most importantly, I was beginning to be able to ask questions if I didn't catch what he was saying. For some reason, it has taken me a long time to feel comfortable asking a question regarding my comprehension. I guess in order to do that, I need a reasonable assurance that a clarification will help me catch it the second (or third) time, otherwise it's just a waste of time and embarrassing. Second, we had an interesting conversation about the US and Italy. It had snowed about an inch again today, so I asked him if this was typical. He told me that it was colder this year, and it doesn't usually snow in Padua. I asked if he liked the cold, and he told me he much preferred the warmth (wild gestures here). Then he asked about the weather of Philadelphia (we always say we're from Philadelphia, it's much easier for Italians, who have frequently at least heard of it, instead of Pennsylvania or York). I told him it was colder in the winter and hotter in the summer than Padua. He told me a funny thing. "I thought so," he said. "I remember very well the first time that I saw you, you had on a short-sleeve shirt and all the Italians were wearing long-sleeve shirts. That was how I knew you were not Italian. We were all so cold and you were not. You could not be from here."
Really, that was what gave it away? I was giddy about this discovery. Yes, I talked to a real Italian and I understood a more complicated conversation. But I also uncovered something that Matt and I had been talking about. What gives us away as non-Italians? Italians don't often assume that we're from the US, for some reason. Spain is actually the most frequent assumption; last week, Lana and Matt were identified as Portuguese! But why? Often we haven't even talked, or we say something that is very typical and, at least in our opinion, sounds pretty Italian. What is it? It seems that it is these very small cultural things, things that we don't even think twice about. Like a short-sleeved shirt in September. Because it is still hot.